RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Don't call North Carolina State a dark horse ACC contender around Mike Rose.
''Being a dark horse kind of sounds like, `We'd be surprised if they won some games - but it could happen,''' Rose said Tuesday. ''I feel like we can compete just like anybody else.''
He and his N.C. State teammates took the first steps toward establishing themselves as legitimate contenders when the Wolfpack held their first practice of preseason camp.
''We're not in full pads (yet) so you can't get too excited about anything,'' third-year coach Dave Doeren said, ''but it's just fun to see the guys who have played and have experience, the way they've come back.''
N.C. State returns 14 starters - including eight on defense - from a team that won four of its last five games, routed rival North Carolina on its home field and beat Central Florida in the Bitcoin Bowl to finish 8-5.
Now the Wolfpack are counting on a carryover from that successful conclusion to 2014.
They've become a trendy pick to challenge in an Atlantic Division that also includes perennial power Florida State, the overall league favorite in Clemson and a Louisville team that has made itself right at home in its new conference.
''I see people competing - my biggest thing is us just taking the next step,'' Rose said. ''We got some more pieces that we needed, that we didn't have last year, and now we're just trying to build off last year.''
Doeren says he senses plenty of confidence from those returning players.
''You see them coaching other players, you see them feeding off each other, and it's exciting as a coach to see that kind of progress in your team,'' Doeren added.
The Wolfpack can still be considered a young team - only 11 players are listed as either seniors or graduate students - while returning a significant amount of experience from last year.
''The attitude was good last year - it wasn't a problem,'' Doeren said. ''We just have more guys that played in games that are back, even though we still are a young team. ... You can see that part of it coming back.''
The most visible returning player - and biggest reason for optimism - is quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
The Florida transfer threw for 2,606 yards with 23 touchdowns and only five interceptions in his first season as the Wolfpack's starter.
''Just being around the same group of guys in the same offense, we have a lot of familiarity with what we're doing,'' Brissett said. ''It's just second nature to a lot of the players out there.''
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